Best Cheap Pharmacies

The drugstore tends to be the default source for some of the items we use most frequently -- toothpaste, shampoo, medication -- but a grocery or big-box store may be a better source for these products. We visited pharmacy departments at Kroger, Target, and Walmart, as well as a CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid in the same central-Ohio market area. We were interested in cost, of course, but also in selection, convenience, customer service, and other reasons a frugal consumer might choose one of these vendors over another.

Our Picks

Drugstore Chains vs. Big-Box and Grocery Store Pharmacies

We started with a shopping list of popular personal-care and beauty items and over-the-counter medications. We also priced out five commonly prescribed drugs and factored in recent comparisons of flu shot prices and walk-in clinics within the stores. Although the factors we assessed may vary from location to location, and even visit to visit, we consistently found that the stand-alone pharmacies charged more than the mass merchants, although rewards programs and store-brand products help narrow the price gap. Drugstores also offer a far wider selection of products within their niche and have an edge in customer service. These findings (see winners chart below) were largely backed up by interviews with consumers, online reviews, and surveys by other outlets.

This comparison does not include two types of retailers that may offer significant savings on prescription medication: independent pharmacies, where prices vary widely by location, and warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club. Membership clubs are required by law to fill prescriptions for nonmembers, but consumers must pay to join if they want to purchase other merchandise, including the types of items on our list. The membership fees are worthwhile for many, but not all, consumers.


The bottom line of our research: Pharmacy departments within big-box stores and supermarkets are reliably cheaper than stand-alone drugstores. When we compared full retail prices for five prescription medications, the total bill at the stand-alone pharmacies ranged from about $286 to $390 compared with less than $260 at the big-box and supermarket pharmacies. The difference between Rite Aid, the most expensive store, and Walmart, the cheapest, was more than $200, although that included a price for the sleep aid Ambien that was more than twice as high as any other pharmacy. Membership in the chain's free Prescription Savings Program brings down the price for customers without insurance. (The prices below do not reflect insurance coverage for prescription drugs, because that depends on the insurance company and plan, not the pharmacy. All the drugstores we visited accept "most insurance." Consumers should consult their providers to determine their coverage.) CVS and Walgreens have similar prescription savings programs, but there's an annual cost to join. At the mass merchants, by contrast, $4 generics and other value pricing are automatically offered to any customer paying out of pocket.

Prescription Drug
Rite Aid
(10 days, 100 ml)
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) With Codeine
(30 days, 300 mg)
Ambien (30 days, 10 mg)
Vicodin (30 days, 300 mg)
Prevacid (30 days, 30 mg)

In a similar comparison of generic drugs by Consumer Reports last year, Walmart prices again lagged far behind the other stores we visited and Rite Aid outcharged the rest. Walgreens undercut its stand-alone competitors in that study and also bested Target and a smattering of grocery-store pharmacies. The survey, which sampled prices at more than 200 pharmacies, found that Costco was the cheapest source for generic prescription drugs.

To compare prices in beauty, personal care, and over-the-counter medications, we shopped for eight products carried by all six retailers: Tums antacid tablets, Maybelline mascara, Clairol hair color, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Ensure liquid nutritional supplements, Sensodyne toothpaste, Secret deodorant, and a Vicks NyQuil cold/flu remedy. The totals at the three stand-alone pharmacies fell in the $60 to $70 range, while the three big-box/grocery-store pharmacies hovered closer to $50. Rite Aid again posted the highest total in our drugstore price comparison, at $71.02. The tabs at Walmart and Target were more than $20 lower. Lest consumers wonder whether a single item swayed this comparison, we found that unit prices, too, were almost always higher at the stand-alone pharmacies. For example, Maybelline Volum' Express The Falsies mascara cost $7.49 (CVS and Rite Aid) or $7.99 (Walgreens) compared with $5.94 at Walmart, $5.99 at Target, and $6.39 at Kroger.

Store Brand vs. Name Brand.

All six retailers sell generic versions of some items on our list. These in-house brands are consistently cheaper than the name-brand equivalents at the same store, and are much more prevalent at the stand-alone drugstores. As a result, the stand-alone drugstores performed markedly better in our price comparison when we substituted store brands for name brands (where available). CVS even managed to surpass Kroger in the overall price ranking. And yet, when we looked at store-brand products available at both types of vendors, they were always cheapest at the mass merchants.

Store-brand products are often sold in just one size, which may differ from the name-brand package. Store-brand dandruff shampoo, for instance, was available only in a 23.7-ounce bottle at Walgreens and Target, while the widely available Head & Shoulders came in a 14.2-ounce size. As expected, the per-ounce cost of a generic product was invariably lower than the name brand.






Prescription Drug Prices

$286.05 (CVS) to $389.95 (Rite Aid); prescription savings programs

$182.57 (Walmart) to $258 (Kroger); $4 generics


Lower costs for a list of five prescription drugs; prescription savings available to all, with no membership fee

Shopping Cart Total: Name Brands Only

$60.72 (CVS) to $71.02 (Rite Aid)

$50.45 (Walmart) to $55.62 (Kroger)


Consumers save at least $5 vs. a stand-alone drugstore on a list of eight health, beauty, and personal-care items

Shopping Cart Total: Store Brands Included

$49.32 (CVS) to $54.52 (Rite Aid)

$42.01 (Walmart) to $51.62 (Kroger)


Although choosing store brands instead of name brands propels CVS ahead of Kroger, the mass merchants retain their price edge

Flu Shots


$25 ($24.99 at Target)


Lower price at all stores

Other Immunizations

$521.96 at Walgreens, $584.96 at CVS*

$448 (Walmart) to $565 (Kroger)


Lowest totals for four vaccines (single dose or first in a series) at in-store walk-in clinics

Rewards Programs

Exclusive coupons and points toward future discounts for members

Target Pharmacy Rewards and Kroger fuel points for prescriptions filled


For loyal customers of any store, a rewards program can help level the playing field with the price leader, Walmart


Numerous options of each item; large selection of store-brand items

Fewer products in health, beauty, and personal care; limited store-brand items


Greater chance of finding unusual items and cheaper store-brand versions; more items to choose from overall


More locations, some 24 hours; smaller, more manageable stores

One-stop shopping when buying groceries and other merchandise


Depends which store is nearest and on consumer preference for picking up drugstore items as part of a larger shopping trip vs. getting in and out quickly

Customer Service

Accessible employees; knowledgeable staff

Pharmacy-department employees often located behind counter and not on floor


Fast, efficient service when customers need assistance finding something

* Although Rite Aid offers immunizations through its pharmacies, it is new to the health-clinic business and was not included in this price comparison.

Pharmacy Rewards and Shopping Experience

Rewards Programs.

While big-box and grocery-store pharmacy departments boasted lower prices overall, we found that sales and discounts via loyalty cards were far more prevalent at stand-alone pharmacies. We shopped without regard for sale prices because there's no guarantee that a product will be available at a discount, or with a coupon, at any given time.

But many consumers we spoke with said a rewards program was an incentive to shop at a stand-alone drugstore and to choose one chain pharmacy over another. Kathleen Koechlin, of Columbus, Ohio, shops at CVS instead of Walgreens because she considers CVS's program more generous and user-friendly. Kelly Makowski of Waldo, Ohio, chooses Walgreens because she can convert loyalty points earned on prescriptions into free items, an especially valuable benefit around the holidays. Janelle Sender, of Milford, Del., shops for her family of five exclusively at Rite Aid with the goal of reaching a status (measured in point totals) high enough to receive a shopping pass good for a discount on most items through the end of the following calendar year.

Mass merchants and supermarkets likewise lure consumers with incentives. Christy Rowland, of Columbus, Ohio, uses her Kroger Plus card to accumulate fuel points, which was a deciding factor in her choice to patronize the Kroger pharmacy. Target pharmacy customers are rewarded with a 5-percent-off shopping pass for every five prescriptions filled, a bonus that stacks on top of a 5-percent discount for using a Target RedCard (debit or credit).


It may come as no surprise that stand-alone drugstores carry a significantly better selection of pharmacy and personal-care products than mass merchants, especially when it comes to store brands. Among the retailers discussed here, CVS boasted the largest inventory. The store we visited dedicated one entire side of an aisle to shampoo and conditioner, plus half an aisle to specialty/salon brands. The number of specialty hair-care products alone was equivalent to the entire selection at Kroger, Target, or Walmart.

The Rite Aid store we visited featured a "Food Mart," which increased the selection of grocery items. However, compared with the other stand-alone drugstores, the rest of the pickings were slim, namely in beauty and personal care. Whereas CVS offered nearly 40 options in women's disposable razors, Rite Aid displayed slightly more than half as many. This was the case for most of the items on our shopping list, and numerous consumers we interviewed corroborated that finding. Sara Seybold, of Cleveland, Ohio, says she shops at Rite Aid out of convenience but has found the selection -- even for prescription drugs -- limited and must go elsewhere for a particular antibiotic her daughter needs. Lisa Keller of Marysville, Ohio, says she chooses CVS or Walgreens because she rarely finds what she is looking for at the local Rite Aid.


Nine of the 10 consumers we interviewed said they would choose a store that was closer to home and more convenient over one that was cheaper. Even if other shoppers hold a different view, there's no denying the appeal of a nearby location, value-added services, and one-stop shopping.

All the pharmacies we visited offered conveniences such as automatic prescription refills, text/phone/email reminders, home delivery, and online prescription management. A drive-thru has become another common perk and was embedded in the CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Kroger outlets we visited (Kroger had a "walk-up," too). Select Walmart stores also operate drive-thru pharmacies; Target does not. CVS far outpaces the rest with more than 900 health clinics nationwide. Overall it's the second-largest chain behind Walgreens, which counts more than 8,000 locations. Rite Aid is a distant third and scarcely registers on the health clinic scale.

The pharmacy-related benefits were similar across the six chains, but other services and types of merchandise varied in availability and convenience. At the stand-alone drugstores, photo services, movie rental machines, ATMs, and a small selection of grocery items were available in addition to the usual products. Still, multiple consumers noted in interviews that a key factor in their choice of pharmacy was the ability to complete multiple tasks in one stop -- including a full grocery shop, which cannot be accomplished at a stand-alone drugstore. Gina Holbrook, of Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that she can pick up groceries at Kroger while waiting for prescriptions to be filled.

Customer Service.

One disadvantage of turning to a mass merchant for pharmacy items is that the closest employee available to offer assistance isn't necessarily assigned to the department. At Walmart, for example, we had trouble locating an item, and the first employee we spotted worked in another department. She was kind enough to locate a pharmacy employee, but that extra step took up valuable time.

During our visits to stand-alone drugstores, we were approached almost immediately upon entering. At Kroger, Target, and Walmart, by contrast, we had to seek out assistance, and the only pharmacy employees we saw were behind the counter. Although easy to spot, they were less accessible than those at the stand-alone pharmacies. (At our local Rite Aid, the store was laid out in such a way that the pharmacy counter had a clear view of the entire store. A pharmacist offered help as soon as we were in earshot and could have directed us to the correct aisle from her vantage point.)

In some cases, a good pharmacist can win consumers' loyalty despite the store's limitations. Amy Hall, of Indianapolis, is loyal to her local Walgreens because she likes the pharmacist and prefers to keep her family's prescription history at one chain, which enables the staff to watch out for potential drug interactions, allergies, etc. Judy Stevens, of Waldo, Ohio, patronizes the local Rite Aid because she and her husband have found the pharmacy staff helpful and knowledgeable -- although they purchase other drugstore merchandise at Walgreens for the reward points.